Wednesday 21 January 2009

Helen Madeleine McKie (1889-1957)

This group of illustrations by Helen McKie come from a promotional book entitled “Ford at War” published in 1946 to celebrate the Ford contribution to the war effort. Ford’s Dagenham factory complex produced vast quantities of military vehicles plus marine and aircraft engines and all aspects of the operation are described in these illustrations. McKie worked through two world wars as an artist/illustrator concentrating on genre scenes rather than combat but this task must have involved many hours of observation in heavy industrial surroundings and seems to have brought a new edge to her work. Forges and machine shops are not familiar territory for female artists although, like Laura Knight, she had no problem making herself at home there. McKie’s paintings bear comparison with Knight’s factory scenes possessing the same robust characteristics despite a lighter quality of paint handling. The presence of such a large female contingent in the workforce is properly recorded in the Dagenham pictures; confident and poised female workers are well in evidence.

Biographical information on Helen McKie is thin on the ground. She is not recorded in the Dictionary of Twentieth Century British Book Illustrators. The best source is the Archive of Art and Design which holds a collection of her personal papers. Much of her work was carried out for magazines and has never been gathered into one place. Magazine illustration is extremely ephemeral and McKie is one of many unsung illustrators whose reputation has suffered as a result. Her drawings were always lively and well observed and she had a genuine flair for portraying crowds. The paintings of Waterloo Station packed with travellers that she produced for the Southern Railway were wonderful demonstrations of skill. Please follow this link to the Science & Society Picture Library to see them plus a generous selection of her other work.

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